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Session 2007 - 08
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Cummings
Beith, Mr. Alan (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Byers, Mr. Stephen (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham) (Lab)
Goldsworthy, Julia (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD)
Healey, John (Minister for Local Government)
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Jones, Mr. Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Viggers, Peter (Gosport) (Con)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
David Slater, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Hexham) (Con)

Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 6 February 2008

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008

2.30 pm
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Northumberland (Structural Change) Order 2008.
John Healey: Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. We could have no one better informed on these matters than you chairing the Committee; I know that you have a great interest in them. May I also welcome members of the Committee and Members present who are not on the Committee, including the hon. Member for Hexham, who is clearly very interested in our discussions?
The draft orders establish new unitary councils in Durham and Northumberland, implementing proposals that the locally elected and accountable Durham and Northumberland county councils have drawn up. Those authorities have discussed the proposals with and sought the views of local agencies and people, and have chosen to submit the proposals to the Secretary of State as the form of governance that they believe is best suited to their areas for the future.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The Minister omits to mention that Northumberland county council, particularly the Labour group, was so bitterly divided on this issue that the only motion that went through the council was that the county should prepare a bid for one unitary authority in the context of there being bids for both a single authority and two unitary authorities.
John Healey: I simply stated the fact that we received the proposal for a single unitary Northumberland authority. We did indeed see a proposal for two unitary authorities in Northumberland, and we considered both of the proposals in the same way against the same criteria. We formed a view on what would be the right way to proceed following our assessment against those criteria last year.
The important point that I want to make at this stage, before coming to some of the details, is that the changes are unlike previous local government restructurings. The proposals, the changes and the plans have not come from central Government; they were prepared in Northumberland and in Durham.
In reaching our view, we had specific regard to five criteria that we set out at the beginning of the process, back in October 2006. Those criteria were the yardsticks against which we judged any proposal, be it for a single unitary authority or dual unitary authorities in Northumberland, or the proposal that was put together for Durham by several of the district councils. Our criteria involved judgments on the strength of strategic leadership, the degree to which local communities and neighbourhoods would be involved in decision making in future, and value for money in improving public services. They also involved judgments about whether the proposals were financially affordable, and whether there was a range of support sufficient to make us believe that if the proposals went ahead, they would be a success. I confirmed to the House on 5 December our judgment that if the proposals in the orders were implemented, there was a reasonable likelihood that they would achieve the outcomes specified in the five criteria.
In contrast, the proposal for Durham submitted by a number of its district councils did not meet any of those five criteria, and the proposal for a two-unitary Northumberland met only two of the five criteria—those on neighbourhood empowerment and affordability.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that, despite much local propaganda in County Durham that the districts did not propose a coherent alternative and, although they argued latterly for the status quo, ultimately they wanted a unitary authority but just to take a little longer time to get there?
John Healey: My hon. Friend describes the proposal as lacking coherence. I describe it as failing to meet each and every one of the five criteria that we set for the process. It was a proposal that did not pass go.
Mr. Jones: Is it not a fact, however, that the districts did not propose an alternative? Although the rhetoric afterwards was that they were against a unitary authority, the proposal they advanced was for a closer working relationship between the districts, which would ultimately end up in having a unitary authority further down the line.
John Healey: That may or may not be the case in areas where there is closer working between district and county level. We set up a process in autumn 2006 that was designed to elicit proposals for unitary arrangements, not two-tier arrangements.
On the basis of our analysis of the figures that we received from the councils behind the proposals, which we gave others who were interested an opportunity to challenge and check, independent financial experts offered me advice on the financial viability of the proposals. That advice leads us to expect that, in Durham, the changes will lead to savings of more than £11 million a year when the unitary is fully established; and in Northumberland, the proposal will lead to savings of more than £17 million.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I have raised this matter before, but perhaps the Minister will spell out the answer again for the sake of members of the Committee. The definition of “sufficient support” seems entirely subjective. What is the criterion? Is it having the support of the majority of district councils? Is it having the support of the majority of stakeholders? If so, how defined is that support? Has it been measured through an electoral process? None of those descriptions seem to fit. If we are to go through such a process in the future, should there not be a clear definition?
John Healey: The question is: is there or is there not a sufficiently broad range of support to give us confidence that, were the proposal to go ahead, it could be a success? The fact is that, in both Durham and Northumberland, there was support from the business sector. In both cases, there was a mixed response from the public. [ Interruption. ] A mix of views came to light in the consultation. In the north-east, we were in the unique position of being able to look at the results of the referendum held in 2004, which asked voters explicitly whether they wanted a unitary Northumberland or a unitary Durham. In the county of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, the majority of people said that they did not want a unitary Northumberland, but two in five people said that they did. In Durham there happened to be a majority of people who said that they did want a unitary Durham. There was also support among public agencies for a single unitary solution, and it would be fair to say that there were mixed views among town and parish councils, although the Northumberland Association of Local Councils expressed a preference for a single unitary council.
Mr. Beith: There is a mixed response in every general election and referendum, but that does not mean that the minority should win.
John Healey: Everyone who went into the process was clear about it from the outset because we set out for them the tests against which we would make the assessment.
The first point to make on the orders before the Committee is that we have prepared them after full discussion with those involved in the two counties. We have followed the approach that we have generally taken throughout the process and adapted the content of the orders to suit the circumstances in a particular area. The orders provide that from 1 April 2009, there will be a single tier of local government in Durham and in Northumberland. Secondly, they provide that the existing district councils on that date will be dissolved. Thirdly, important transitional arrangements are contained in the orders that will allow for the establishment of all-party implementation executives led by the county council, whose membership is drawn from the county and the districts. Fourthly, the orders require elections to the new councils to be held in May this year. May 2008 is the earliest practicable date for fresh elections and having elections then will enable preparations for the new councils to be made and provide the new councils with their democratic mandate as early as possible. Finally, to provide the necessary support for the work, the orders provide for a team of officers drawn from county and districts to help to make sure that that work is done.
Our approach to the transition to the new authorities, which is captured in the orders and based on the judgments we have made, is to ensure that is as effective and as smooth as possible. We also intend the transition to avoid disruption to services, give a good deal to staff and service users, be fair to the staff and, above all, lead to the creation of councils that in the future will have a form of governance that means that Northumberland and Durham should expect and demand that their new councils are flagship councils for the rest of the country.
2.43 pm
Robert Neill: I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings; you have particular knowledge and expertise in this matter. The Minister and I have been around this course before in another part of the country and in another part of the building, so like him, I will endeavour to be brief.
It will not surprise the Minister to know that the Opposition’s concerns about the process as a whole remain unchanged. To say that the measure is driven by proposals that emanate from within the counties, is, with respect, a little disingenuous because essentially in the consultation the Government said, “This is what we want you to come up with.” It was about as heavy a hint and steer as one can get. It would be ironic and perhaps unfair to hold the district councils’ co-operation in finding a way forward against them. They have been decent about the process but, in a sense, they were merely given a choice of means of their own execution. To suggest that that implies acquiescence or enthusiasm is to misrepresent the picture. People are getting on with making the best of a rather bad job that has been served up to them.
Mr. Jones: In County Durham, the proposal was put forward by a Conservative Government 15 years ago and it was fudged then. The hon. Gentleman says to the Committee that the new proposals emanated from the Government; I reassure him that since I was elected to this House in 2001, I, along with quite a lot of people in Durham, have been campaigning for exactly these proposals.
Robert Neill: Sometimes, upon mature reflection, one concludes that reorganisations create as many risks as they solve, and that is the real problem. Reorganisation can bring benefits, but it brings real risks as well. That is why we contend reorganisation should take place only if those who propose the change can demonstrate cogent and compelling evidence in support of the change. For reasons that we will come to shortly, that case is not made out here.
Mr. Jones: I am waiting with anticipation for the May elections and for Conservative candidates in Durham to argue against the fact that in six out of seven of the district councils in County Durham, council tax will decrease by about £200 a year.
Robert Neill: I do not think that Conservative candidates or voters will fall for that line, trotted out by the Labour party in County Durham. The evidence, I am afraid, indicates that all too often savings do not materialise in the way that is hoped, that bureaucracies grow rather than shrink and that council tax rises rather than falls. Any responsible candidate will be saying to the electors that they want to ensure that reorganisation does not become a distraction from ensuring that services are delivered efficiently and at the highest quality.
Reorganisation does not of itself do anything for front-line services. No doubt that is why the leader of Teesdale district council—not a Conservative, as I recall—said:
“We have made plain to the government, to Durham County Council and to the people we are here to serve that this change will be costly and disruptive and have a damaging impact on services provided locally to half a million people.”
That was Councillor Richard Betton, the leader of Teesdale district council. There is no party political point there; as far as I am concerned, that was his assessment and it is the concern that many people have.
Mr. Jones: Is it not a fact that Teesdale district council has been under special measures because of the inefficient way in which it has been run for the past God knows how many years?
Robert Neill: I am happy to let the hon. Gentleman sort that out with his party colleagues in Durham. Perhaps if they had more Conservative councillors up there we would not have that difficulty and Teesdale would be prospering rather more, but he cannot get around the fact that there is real scepticism from the district councils. Their mandate is as good as that of the counties and their members are as in touch with their voters. I notice that Councillor Betton was speaking not just for himself but on behalf of the Durham District Councils’ Forum, of which he is chairman.
When Durham district council carried out a poll across the county, organised by the Electoral Reform Services—a body that is regarded as good enough by many organisations, including many political parties, to conduct their elections—more than 75 per cent. of people said that they were opposed to the proposals that were being put forward. It comes back to the point that when proposing major change that has major impacts, the onus of proof should be on those who propose the change to demonstrate it to a high standard. We regret that that has not been done in this case.
The other matter that I wanted to touch on briefly is Northumberland. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham has particular knowledge of Northumberland. An alternative was put forward there that might more sensibly have dealt with the geography of that particularly large and disparate county, which is the two unitary councils alternative. We are concerned that the interests of rural Northumberland may not be properly addressed in one single unitary council. Attempts to deal with the matter through the community governance and area governance structures, although well-intended and discussed among the various parties, appear hugely cumbersome. There is a real worry about how the process will work in practice. What will be the legitimacy of those sub-county structures? How will they link and work with the parish and town councils? How can we ensure that we do not create as great a bureaucracy as we are getting rid of?
A related matter is the postponement of the parish council elections to 2013. If, particularly in geographically large areas, there is a move to a single-tier authority, one would have thought that the role and legitimacy of parishes and town councils would be all the greater. People must be able to deal with something that is at a much more local level. As that is the case, the postponement of the elections until 2013 is perhaps surprising—I wonder what the argument for it is, beyond one of costs and pragmatism. It would mean that it was about six years since the last parish council election. The Government’s justification is that it is not worth holding parish council elections in a year when they cannot be put on the back of other elections. If the Government think the elections are only that important, it does not say much for their view of the status of the elections, so perhaps that is something that they should reflect upon. I hope the Minister can assure people that there will be no disturbance to the parish arrangements in those counties. Will he ensure that the sub-county arrangements are enhanced?
Another concern is about structure and operation. I accept that they will differ from place to place. I made the point in relation to the order debated yesterday in the Chamber but it applies to all the orders: there is a duty to co-operate in the transition period, which seems sensible, but I am still not convinced by the Minister’s arguments that we should not have a like duty to scrutinise. The fact that merely from sensible self-interest and concern for the needs of their residents, responsible district councils will co-operate is not a complete answer, because sometimes, as we know, turf wars break out and get in the way. I am sure that will not happen in Northumberland or Durham, but it would be better for the good intentions to be underpinned by a duty to co-operate, if the Government undertake the process, to try to make it work more effectively.
For all those reasons, we remain unconvinced about the Government’s stance. In general, our inclination is to say that the whole process was needless and unnecessary. The previous Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—now the Secretary of State for Transport—described local government reorganisation as a distraction. She had no time for the process. The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury raised serious questions and suggested that it might not be affordable. It is pity that the current Secretary of State did not listen to those wise words before we embarked upon the process. When even the Government’s own colleagues have serious doubts, it demonstrates how dubious the case is.
My final concern is that in relation to Durham and Northumberland, the date of the election in May is putting a gun to our heads. If there were more time to think again, we should be very much inclined to ask the Government to do so. It is particularly hard for people in those counties who want to get on with delivering services when they are confronted with such difficulties. It is not fair. For all those reasons, we have real concerns about the orders.
2.53 pm
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Cummings, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and a pleasure to be back among familiar faces. The Minister is certain to be very busy this week with these and other issues.
In considering the statutory instruments, the Minister made great play of the fact that the proposals and their details were being driven from the ground up. The most frustrating thing is the time scale we are operating in, which has been driven by this place. It leaves us in a difficult position—we are considering orders for elections that will take place this May. Whatever reservations there may be, we should think about the serious implications if the orders were to fall. What impact would that have on the May elections? Even in the case of the statutory instrument we discussed yesterday, there would have been knock-on effects on the boundary review, and the opportunity to have elections on new boundaries in 2009. It is frustrating to think that the time scale has constrained the fullness of debate that we would have liked.
Mr. Jones: Can the hon. Lady explain why the Liberal Democrat-controlled Durham city council opted for and supported elections in 2008?
Julia Goldsworthy: There are parallels with discussions I had with schools in my constituency that took part in the first round of the private finance initiative. It was the only game in town, so they had to play by the rules. People in Northumberland and Durham feel strongly that in order to do their very best to make a success of the process it is important that there is a mandate as soon as possible. The orders were laid before Christmas and we have had different drafts of them, so it is entirely fair to say that there has been a delay in the process. We are running to a tight time scale in matters that we will be debating tomorrow for a boundary review in Cornwall, too. Even if the decision is deferred, if the process is carried through, it will knock out the opportunity for a boundary review with elections on new boundaries in 2009. We are working on a time scale and we are seeking to co-operate.
Mr. Beith: My hon. Friend is probably aware that in Northumberland—I believe it is the case in Durham, too—one of the reasons for wanting elections this year was that if they did not take place, all the decisions for a new authority, including the key staff appointments, would be made by existing controlling county councillors to the exclusion of the views of people from the districts and, quite often, people of different political persuasions.
Julia Goldsworthy: My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. The motivation behind all this is to ensure that there is as long and orderly a transition process as possible for the takeover of the new authority. As has already been mentioned, both Durham and Northumberland held referendums in 2007—both of which were independently audited. Can the Minister comment on how much account was taken of the views expressed there? Durham said no to a unitary council. With Northumberland, there was a clear expression in favour of two unitaries rather than one.
The point that those findings illustrate is that there are concerns that a single structure would struggle to meet the needs of very specific communities. One of the five criteria outlined is to deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood empowerment. One of the similarities that Durham and Northumberland share is that they have both rural, sparsely populated areas and also urbanised areas. Both are justified in raising concerns about the impact of a single unitary structure on the representation of those communities. Durham has raised valid concerns that there is unequal representation of those urban and rural communities and feels that the three areas the region has been broadly split into are not equal in size.
Similarly, in Northumberland, there is a feeling that the implementation executive is more reflective of the urban end of the unitary area rather than the rural areas. If part of this whole debate is about trying to encourage strong and prosperous communities and neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, there has to be geographical and political representation. There are concerns that there will be difficulties in achieving it.
I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on whether in his view the proposals reflect natural communities. We take the view that different communities will seek representation in different ways; we should not be proposing a one-size-fits-all agenda. However, the fact that so many concerns have been raised about the structures we are debating today demonstrates that there is valid worry that the issues have not been adequately addressed.
A wider concern is that the authorities making the proposals have been keen to look upwards—to fulfil what is being asked of them in central Government—rather than looking downwards to the communities that they seek to represent. There may be questions to be put at both ends of that equation, to make sure that all the attention is fully directed at delivering improved services.
To follow up my comments yesterday, I want to raise the point—also touched on by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—that parish council elections are being postponed until 2013. The Minister did not have much time to respond last night, so can he respond today? Unitary councils provide an opportunity to push down more power to parish councillors, but the difficulty is that, with elections in 2013, parish councils elected on an entirely different basis will be asked to take on those responsibilities. What scope will there be to avoid delay in holding parish elections so that parish councillors can stand for election knowing exactly what powers they will be asked to take on?
It is clear that none of the arrangements is perfect; they are unsatisfactory, but as I said, this is the only game in town. There has been a constructive effort to make the best of the proposals. The comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and those of Lady Maddock in the other place were made in an effort to be constructive; they are raising their concerns about the process, but are working with it so as not to jeopardise the road that we have already travelled a long way down.
There is concern that outright opposition is in danger of derailing the whole process. That in itself is a major criticism of the process that we have been through, but it does not mean that the Government can ignore the need to address some of the failures that have occurred. I hope that the Minister will make a commitment to provide further amending orders if they are necessary so that even in such a short time scale there is the genuine option of making the best of what has been a very bad process.
3.1 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak even though I am not a member of the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst outlined some of the problems and drawbacks of the process and I do not wish to repeat those. It was a pity that the two-way split authority did not receive more examination than it did. It would have been quite an innovative process and something of a pioneer in local government reform. Having said that, the decision has been made.
I have long been in favour of the reorganisation of local government in Northumberland. Physically, it is a large county, but it has a population of just over 300,000. Having a total of nearly 300 councillors made it over-governed. From memory, I believe that we first attempted to reform local government in Northumberland in 1995, when Lord Heseltine was Secretary of State for the Environment. There was no agreement and the process was abandoned.
The Conservative party has a policy of restoring greater powers to local government. That is something that we would like to do if we were in power. Therefore, it is important that local government is fit for the purpose of receiving additional powers. Reorganising Northumberland to have one authority will be better than the current system of six district councils and the county council.
I also highlight the issue that all political parties find it extremely difficult to find people to stand as councillors on district councils. It was a real difficulty persuading people to stand. We were more or less going out and arm-twisting people into standing for district councillor. With the new unitary authority, there will be competition. There certainly is competition for seats in the Conservative party and it will be a much more lively local authority when the process is finished.
In passing, I pay tribute to the district councils that will be abolished under this process. I have two in my constituency, one of which is Tynedale district council, which has always been a beacon council. It has served the people of that part of Northumberland well. It is a large rural area and is the largest district council in England. I think that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was a councillor there. He was also a councillor for Hexham rural district council. Curiously, we almost seem to be going back into history because when we have the new unitary authority, we will have things called “belonging communities”, which rather represent the old rural district councils that we used to have. Nothing much changes.
The councils have served their populations well, certainly in Tynedale. The other authority that I represent in part is Castle Morpeth, which is a difficult district. It contains the most affluent part and one of the most deprived parts of the north-east. That has made it a difficult council, which has been run much better only recently because all political parties have worked together. There is no overall control of the council.
We should also pay tribute to the senior staff who have done a very good job, occasionally in difficult areas, whose jobs throughout Northumberland are now in peril. The changes will mean redundancies at senior level. While regretting, to some extent, the final choice of one unitary council, it is important now that those councillors who have been selected to stand at the next election get on and campaign, and that the county council and district council councillors work together to make the change a success.
I urge the Minister on one final point. There is a feeling that there will be a takeover by the county council of the district councils. There are indications of that happening already. I urge him to keep a strong eye on the process that develops over the next 12 months, so that we create a genuinely new authority, which would have much wider support than one that is seen as a takeover of an existing county council.
3.6 pm
Mr. Jones: I support the order. I am not going to take any lessons in consulting or listening to the public from Conservatives, who did away with Tyne and Wear county council, Cleveland county council and the Greater London council, completely ignoring local people’s views. It is strange to hear the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst argue that people should have the final say in what happens.
I have supported a single unitary county council since I was elected. I used to be a member of a unitary council in Newcastle, and the complexity and nonsense that goes on in County Durham under the current system bemuses me. Some 87 per cent. of local government spending is spent by the county council. There is the nonsense of household waste collection being collected by the district councils when the responsibility for disposing of it lies with the county council. Recycling methods across County Durham do not work because they are fragmented. It is a nonsense. The public look on in bemusement when they ring the county council and say, “I have a problem with a bit of road outside my house,” only to be told, “It is not our responsibility. It is a district council responsibility.” The people whom I speak to in my constituency do not care who does it, as long as it gets done.
We have had the most inefficient system in County Durham of jobsworths, in some places, buckpassing on big issues between the district and county councils. I am a critic of both, because the current county council has its failings and the two district councils in my constituency have theirs. I agree with the hon. Member for Hexham that whatever political complexion the new unitary county council has in County Durham, it has to be different and it has to be seen to be different, but it also has to be seen as not a takeover bid, which is the case among certain people on the county council.
There are great opportunities for local efficiency. Thinking of the bigger picture in County Durham, there is also something that I call the County Durham disease, which goes a bit like, “We are bottom of the pile. We are happily bottom of the pile. Give us more money and that is how we’ll solve it.” I am sorry, but that will not do in this day and age. If we are to have really strong local government in County Durham, we have a great opportunity to get some economies of scale, but also to do some big thinking, which has not happened in County Durham because of local turf wars between the district and county councils. This could be a great age for local government in County Durham. It can be a national beacon for efficiency while having a strong voice locally as well.
I disagree with the arguments that somehow the proposals have been forced from the top down. I sympathise with some of the arguments about Northumberland, but they are two completely different cases. I accept the arguments of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed about the problems that face large parts of rural Northumberland, which are completely different to its south-east corner, which has population and industry. However, the majority of MPs in County Durham supported a single unitary council, and we need to get that clear for the record. There was one exception, and a strong voice in favour of district councils came from you, Mr. Cummings, as the hon. Member for Easington. Otherwise, local MPs supported the move.
With regard to the process, the county council made a clear bid that was well thought out and argued and supported by organisations as wide ranging as the chamber of commerce and local parish councils. The district councils did not put in an alternative bid. They voiced an interest to say that they would work closely together for a period of time to come together ultimately in a unitary council. Afterwards, they tried to rewrite history by saying that they were against a unitary council, but that is not the case.
Reference was made to the referendum by the district councils. It was a complete sham and did not explain their proposals. I would have been in favour of a proper test of public opinion that allowed the county council and the district councils to state their position in the envelope that went out. However, it was a one-sided leaflet, which argued for the vague nonsense that the district councils proposed. In one council in my area, the chief executive of the district council got the local employees together and said that if they lived locally and did not vote to retain the district council, they would all lose their jobs. That was not a fair and open process, and an opportunity was missed by the district councils and possibly the county council.
However, the order will be good news for County Durham. We have already seen some of the gains, for example, from the reorganisation of the primary care trust. If we have the primary care trust and the acute trust that now covers Durham, the Durham police authority and one single unitary council, the big decisions that need to be made will benefit County Durham and raise the aspirations and quality of local government there.
I take the point that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne made about whether there is a local say in a large county such as Durham, and that is a perfectly legitimate comment. I am a great supporter of town and parish councils. That is why I have argued successfully for pushing local decision making down to a local level, and there will be elections in my constituency this year for a new Stanley town council. Questions have been asked about timing of the elections, but a lot of councils went through elections last May and it would be hard to redo those .
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)(Lab): It is not my area of the country, but I am old enough, as my hon. Friend might not be, to remember the local government White Paper of 1969, which was produced by the Labour Government. That proposed a series of unitary councils across the country, with town and parish councils for those communities that wanted them, which is precisely what he wants.
Mr. Jones: I think that I was at primary school at that time, so it was perhaps not on my reading list.
We have a great opportunity. Some of the parish councils that I deal with in my constituency—the ones that have grasped the Government challenge on the quality of parish councils, for example—are doing a bloomin’ good job. They are taking care of the little things that make a real difference in the villages. Certainly, there is an opportunity for them to have a greater say in what might seem like small politics to us, but it is important to local people.
Julia Goldsworthy: The hon. Gentleman makes the fair point that it would be an additional burden for areas that had elections in 2008 to repeat them in 2009. Of course, bearing in mind the many other orders that we have considered and will consider, there will be all-out elections in 2009. Surely it would make sense to have all the parish elections at the same time so that they all begin on that entirely new remit.
Mr. Jones: I disagree. We have some well-established parish councils. I think that some new parish councils will also come in, and there is an opportunity over the next few years to do that. One of the arguments for delaying the implementation in County Durham was the fact that we want the Boundary Commission to redraw the boundaries for county council wards. They were only done last year for the first time. The important thing is to get the council up and running. There is a big challenge, in terms not just of being able to do it, but of the political mindset of the unitary county councillors and their ability to give power locally to local people.
Julia Goldsworthy: Will the hon. Gentleman give us an idea of the proportion of parish councillors at the last election who were co-opted as opposed to elected? Perhaps if they are to be given new powers they should have the opportunity to stand for election.
I know, Mr. Cummings, that you and I disagree on this, but there is a great opportunity for County Durham. It is long overdue. I look forward to the new council coming into being. I have one question for the Minister. What happens to the local district council from now until May? I have raised that with him before, but I should like it on the record. I am concerned about the activities of certain district councils and the selling off of assets or the possibility of getting into ludicrous contracts. Durham district council, for example, is trying to get rid of £10 million on what has been described as a mausoleum for the previous council or council leader. We need some controls over what district councils can spend. I would not want the new county council to come into being with a long list of commitments or to find that in the meantime land had been divested to various organisations.
Having posed that question, I very much welcome the order. I look forward to the elections in May and to the new authority coming into being.
3.18 pm
Mr. Beith: Under your welcome chairmanship, Mr. Cummings—I do not presume to reflect on your opinions on the Durham order—I shall talk mainly about the Northumberland order. I must first declare an interest. My wife is a member of Northumberland county council and of Berwick borough council and also, as it happens, of the House of Lords Merits Committee that produced the document making some criticisms of comments on the orders.
I very much agree with the hon. Member for Hexham about the tribute we should pay to those who have served on the district and borough councils that will disappear as part of this process and to the staff, many of who are known personally to both of us. It is a difficult time for them. I remember the same process in 1974. So drastic is the reduction in councillors this time and, if the savings are to be made, in staff jobs, that many people’s lives will be significantly affected. Many of them have contributed a lot to our communities. In some cases there are proud borough traditions. Berwick, in particular, has been a borough right back to the days when it was a Scottish borough before it finally settled in England. These traditions will need to be maintained. I shall come later to the issue of Berwick town council.
Reorganising local government in Northumberland, as the hon. Member for Hexham indicated, is quite difficult. Unitary authorities have significant advantages. They can represent a financial saving and can be much less confusing to electors. I sometimes have difficulty myself in discerning which authority is running particular parts of a service, despite long experience in dealing with them. Also we have problems in our small districts with recruiting and retaining staff and in having a sufficient base to be able to switch resources at all between services. It is quite difficult to operate small districts effectively on a very tight budget and with a limited number of services.
Northumberland is doubly difficult because it is a vast county. It is 100 miles from my home in Berwick to many parts of the Hexham constituency such as Haltwhistle and Allendale. There are huge differences between the large rural and market towns area and the concentrated urban area in the south-east. Population density in the south-east is 10.6 people a hectare. In the rest of the county we have three hectares for every person. There is a lot of space in Northumberland. That illustrates the profound difference between the two types of area.
There is also a political dimension to the difference. The county council is run by Labour councillors, almost exclusively from the south-east corner. Almost all the Conservative councillors come from the remainder of the county. The Liberal Democrats are alone in having significant representation from both parts of the county. Historically, that has tended to mean that at any given stage, the county tends to be run either by the urban south-east or, in some earlier years, by the rural areas. That is not a happy situation and could be worrying for the new authority. I obviously hope to prevent it by getting a Liberal Democrat elected.
The problem is made worse by the fact that many of the councillors from the south-east do not seem to understand the problems of the rural area. No doubt they are preoccupied with the genuine problems that they have in the urban area. That is illustrated in policy matters. There is a £360 charge on every child over 16 who needs transport to school, which is a crippling blow in rural areas. I hope that at the county council meeting today, we might start the process of getting rid of that charge, but it illustrates the devising of policies that do not have much effect on the urban area but have a profound one on the rural area.
Similarly, young students travelling to college in Newcastle from my constituency were told that they could not travel by train any more, which took 45 minutes, but had to spend an hour and a half each way travelling on the bus. There is a lack of understanding, and we are worried that that could be the case in the combination of a single authority for the urban and rural areas, which is what we have experienced with county services such as education. It would now apply to all services including housing and local services.
People in the urban area might want to say that rural councillors do not have a full understanding of some of their problems, either. That being the case, all the district councils, involving every political party, supported a two-unitary Northumberland, which was a properly prepared bid, as I think the Minister has acknowledged. That proposal was supported by every Member of Parliament in the county, from whatever political party they came. It was supported firmly and without hesitation by all four of the county’s MPs. The county council, as I pointed out earlier, were told that they could put forward their own bid, the preferred bid of the leadership—some of the key officers on the county council—on the basis of a resolution that said that it had been put forward in the context of there being two bids. In other words, they had to acknowledge that there was an equal validity with the two-authority bid.
Precisely those two forms of local government were the subject of a Government referendum in 2004. It was not some poll organised by one group of authorities to suit their own point of view. It was a Government referendum and had two results. One was that the proposal for a regional assembly was defeated. Those of us who wanted a regional assembly lost, so we did not get one. We had to accept that—that is democracy. The majority were for two local authorities for Northumberland, but the same thing did not apply there. They voted for two local authorities but still got one. The Government simply ignored the referendum. In fact their view, expressed in the decision letter, was that
“there appears to be at least a reasonable level of support”
for the single authority proposal, but they admitted that the 2004 referendum
“produced a majority against the single unitary option”.
The letter went on to state that
“it is significant that in that referendum the single unitary option nevertheless had significant support—over 40 per cent.”
It continued—this is how to turn 40 per cent. into a majority—that the chief constable and the north-east chamber of commerce were both in favour of a unitary authority. That, in the new Labour democracy, is a majority. They get 40 per cent., plus the chief constable and the regional chamber of commerce, and bingo! They have won. That is an extraordinary distortion of any concept of democracy. I am bound to say that the north-east chamber of commerce, to my recollection, indicated that it was quite happy to work with either of the two versions but wished to ensure that there was unitary local government in Northumberland. The chief constable is, of course, the one who wanted to amalgamate his force with those of Durham and Teesside. The Government dropped that proposal.
Mr. Jones: I am listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying and understand why, politically, he would want two separate unitary authorities. However, is it not the case that the population would all be in one authority in the south-east corner, with the other authority as a spartan area, as he described? Is it realistic that the second unitary council, which covers a vast part of rural Northumberland, would be viable?
Mr. Beith: I believe that it would, and the Government assessment indicates that it would, despite their preference. I do not deny that potentially there would be a greater financial saving from a single unitary authority than from two. However, the two-authority option is viable, as was determined in 2004 and again later. But, of course, some sharing of services is assumed. That was accepted by all parties as being a sensible solution, rather than splitting up some of the services that currently run around the county. Of course, there is some scope for sharing of services beyond that.
The Government decided, and the county leadership then set about what I think was intended as a takeover. They set about it with determination. It is a danger to which the hon. Member for North Durham has already referred. They set up a transitional executive in which the districts were completely outnumbered. Politically, it was extraordinary, in that the leaders of the Opposition groups on the county council were allowed to attend the executive without a vote. Labour held 35 per cent. of the councils in the total area of Northumberland, but had 10 of the 14 places on the executive. The Liberal Democrats had 30 per cent. of the councils, and the Conservatives had 26 per cent., but between us we had only four places on the transitional executive. It was an obvious takeover from the district standpoint, and a political takeover into the bargain. That situation was only improved by the provisions contained in the order. I am grateful to the Minister for realising that something had to be done about that. The Merits Committee in the House of Lords remarked on it being very unusual to specify the composition of a transition executive. However, if it had not been done, the situation would have continued in which the county was basically planning the entire future of the supposedly new authority, which was completely unacceptable.
As if that was not enough, the county leader took to himself powers that he has used secretly, which has only just come out, to pay three chief officers of the county council a 20 per cent. pay increase. The Government are worried about police pay affecting national inflation targets. This is a 20 per cent. pay rise for just three officers determined by the Labour leader of the council. Of course, there were considerable fears that county officers would be manoeuvred into all the top jobs on the council. Thank goodness the Government agreed that a different form of executive had to be specified, although that did not prevent the 20 per cent. pay rise. But, thank goodness also that the Government agreed that we should have elections this year.
I had a meeting with the Minister on that subject, and obviously I support him in the decision that he made, that it is a new authority and the people who make many of the decisions about who will employ that authority and how it will organise itself, will have been elected for that purpose and have a democratic mandate to do so. That was an important decision.
There may be a loss of skilled, local government jobs in places such as Berwick and Alnwick if functions are too centralised. That is true of Berwick in particular. It is 50 miles from the county headquarters, so if people are told that they can have jobs at the headquarters, that simply is not a realistic option for many of them. Indeed, we are significantly nearer to the headquarters of the Scottish Borders council than to those of Northumberland county council, which means that some people who change jobs for career reasons go to Scottish Borders, rather than southwards. It is important to decentralise services, but I am concerned about that issue.
There is also confusion about what kind of internal devolution can take place and to what. There is a series of different, overlapping plans. We have plans for the three area bodies, which are being developed by the transitional executive. There is a tier of belonging communities that the county has been putting forward for a while, which has caused controversy in places in which people do not feel that they belong with the people with whom the county says they belong. That is particularly true in the southern part of my constituency. I am talking about groups of parishes. There are also partnership areas, which increasingly spend more money than local authorities—many partnership structures have access to far more resources—but do not correspond to any other areas.
Then, there is the important level of parish and town councils, which I want to acquire more power and responsibility, but for that to happen, some of them have to be created. It is important that we get the Berwick town council order properly signed, sealed and put through so that Berwick can have a town council. Currently, it does not have a parish council. That could be the repository for Berwick’s rich, historic traditions. The rest of my constituency has parish councils, and Alnwick has a town council, as does Morpeth. It is also the headquarters of Castle Morpeth borough council, which the hon. Member for Hexham and I share. In areas such as Blyth and Wansbeck, there will be issues as to whether parish councils should be created.
I want to express my concerns about Durham. I have particular sympathy for the City of Durham, which is a proud city with long traditions. Unusually, it has had a change of political control in recent years. That does not happen much at all in the rest of County Durham, which is not a very healthy state of affairs. There is real resentment in Durham, and any poll that was taken in the city would reveal that people do not want to lose the distinctness of having a city authority. I have real fears about what will happen there.
Mr. Jones: May I correct the right hon. Gentleman? With respect, the issue is not the City of Durham council but traditions such as having the mayor, which have been recognised under the new arrangements put forward by the council.
Mr. Beith: Indeed, and we will seek to do the same in Berwick, but there is far more to it than that. Durham is quite a big city—much bigger than Berwick—and might therefore expect to make key decisions about local services on a significant scale. That is what it will lose through this process, and I have a great deal of sympathy with it on that count.
As for Northumberland, as the hon. Member for Hexham said, the decision has been made, and members of my party who are councillors and county candidates are working towards the next elections and are determined to make a success of the new council. That is the view that we have taken for some time, much as we disagree with the decision. I have identified our concerns and I hope that the Minister can allay at least some of them.
3.34 pm
John Healey: This has been a good debate. I shall try to deal with the specific points that hon. Members have raised, but in a different order from how I would usually do so. I will deal first with the points raised by hon. Members who represent constituencies in the two counties affected.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed gave us his caricature interpretation of the way in which we calculate assessed support as one of the five criteria. We were not using a first-past-the-post system. We specifically said that we would not be looking for a majority in any particular group, because that is not the best way to judge the nature of support necessary to make a success of the proposals. That is the way in which we attempted to do it. His observations, like those of the hon. Member for Hexham, are welcome, as is his declaration that he is in favour of some reorganisation for his county. I assure him that we gave this proposal careful assessment, as we did the other proposals for the two unitary Northumberlands.
Both the hon. Member for Hexham and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed were very clear about the large, diverse and sparse nature of their county. Perhaps I could answer this in two ways. The area and neighbourhood arrangements that have been set out as part of the proposal are designed specifically to help ensure that the authority is not seen as too remote, and to ensure that local communities have a say in the services in their area. I would hope that they and the other members of this new authority will make sure that those elements of the proposals are developed to the full, put in place and explored and exploited to the full, so that some of the concerns, particularly regarding Northumberland, are not realised.
I turn to a couple of specific comments and questions from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. We are making arrangements for the implementation executive in all the orders—we are not singling out Northumberland for special treatment in this regard. Whatever the various starting points in the different areas, we have endeavoured to encourage a consensus—I think he recognises that that has been reached in Northumberland—and we have captured that in the orders. The importance of the implementation executive is such that we felt it should be set in the orders. That is what we have done, and we have done it consistently.
Reference was made to the talk of extra elections, and perhaps I could set out the position on this. After the elections that we all expect to work, and hope will work, successfully in May this year, the boundary committee and the Electoral Commission will undertake electoral reviews in Durham and Northumberland, the aim of which will be to revise as necessary the electoral divisions within those new council areas, and to do so in light of what will be new unitary arrangements. Under statute, it is for the Electoral Commission, not the Secretary of State, to decide when the new electoral arrangements should be implemented—be that at the elections in 2013 or some other date. We published a discussion document as part of that process last August, clearly setting out our view.
In the first few years of a new council, especially one that has just been elected, the arrangements and leadership should be as stable as possible. In the Government’s view, that will get the council off to the best start. Such a consideration would point to avoiding interim elections between 2008 and 2013. It is a matter for the Electoral Commission to decide, but I hope that it will take that clearly into account in any decision that it reaches about when to put in place the new electoral arrangements following its review. I hope also that it will take into account the views of members of the Committee.
Mr. Jones: What the Minister says quite alarms me. The boundary committee carried out its re-warding of County Durham last year, so the wards are of equal numbers. I have no problem with the boundary committee, but my recent experience with the Electoral Commission shows that it needs a clear political hand—not a party political hand—given that its views might overshadow some of the benefits of stability that the Minister has described, and which are needed in County Durham. I beg the Minister to keep some political control over it.
John Healey: I am setting out the view of the Government as well as the legal position of power of the Electoral Commission. I hope that it takes the views that have been expressed this afternoon, and previously, closely into account.
Mr. Beith: If the Electoral Commission were to decide, contrary to advice that we have now received, that it wanted additional elections in 2010, would it have to bring an order before the House to bring that about?
John Healey: The short answer is no. The Electoral Commission has such a power in order to decide when the new arrangements that it concludes are appropriate for Northumberland or Durham should be brought into effect. The special nature of the Electoral Commission means that, extremely unusually—as members of the Committee will appreciate—it makes the decision, but it also makes the order so there is no order that requires the usual process.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about a matter that is closer to home. The order to set up Berwick town council will be made shortly. It will then be the intention of the Electoral Commission or the district council to arrange elections for May 2008. I hope that I have given him some reassurance and clarity in respect of the concerns that he has had for some time.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham is right that the new council must be different from the outset. I have consistently been clear about that. He is right that it can and should be used to strengthen the hand of town and parish councils. He asked about the circumstances in one of the district councils in the county. The situation is that once the order is passed we then have the powers to ensure that decisions are not taken that would compromise or undermine the long-term interests of the residents and ratepayers. We will use those powers if necessary and those powers allow us to require consent over entering into significant financial or contractual arrangements and I hope that is clear and firm enough for him.
Mr. Jones: I am very grateful for that and I think it will be very welcome, especially given the recent antics of Derwentside district council. Will that be retrospective? Some of the decisions taken, although perhaps not entered into, in recent weeks by Derwentside district council, have frankly been reckless.
John Healey: The order has a degree of retrospection and complexity with which I need not detain the Committee at this point, but if my hon. Friend wants chapter and verse I am very happy to give it to him. I sense that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is not keen to hear this now.
Robert Neill rose—
John Healey: I will certainly give way—the hon. Gentleman seems to have woken up.
John Healey: In summary terms, since the hon. Gentleman presses me, this is a power that would involve financial thresholds that are cumulative, not singular, which have a degree of retrospection that pre-dates the point at which the order is passed, not from the point the order is passed, and which require consent from the Secretary of State for entering into such commitments. The Secretary of State can delegate that consent process to a nominated authority and it may be quite obvious that they can delegate it to the implementation executive and the emerging new authority. I hope that is helpful.
I appreciate the co-operation and constructive approach that the Liberal Democrats are taking in this House and in the other place. Both the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for Bromley and Chislehurst questioned the matter of parish elections in 2013. Usually parish council elections, as we all know, are held at the same time as elections for the principal authority. It is the best use of resources, and it is usually the way to get the best turnout. The reality is, as was mentioned in the debate this afternoon, that many parishes find it hard to attract candidates to stand in all posts in all elections, so many seats go uncontested. Therefore, moving parish council elections on to the cycle that we anticipate for the new councils seems the sensible thing to do.
We do have the scope, however, once this order and the other orders are passed, to lay an amending order, were that the sensible and the right thing to do, to allow us to alter the date, if we wished, of the next parish council elections in those new authority areas. I have explained the approach that we are taking in the orders, on which I have an open mind and on which I am quite prepared to hear further views from Members of this House, members of the implementation executives and others in these new council areas. If there was a case for bringing forward new parish council elections and having them outwith the new cycle of elections for the new councils, I would be prepared to consider that and there would be scope to do so, should we come to that conclusion.
Robert Neill: That is very helpful. In trying to be helpful, perhaps the Minister could consider a slight variant of that, which is an amending order that, if there was pressure for it, would enable the parish council elections in the first instance to take place out of sync, but could extend the term for a year or so, to bring them back into sync with the council elections thereafter. It would be possible to achieve that without being out of sync right the way through.
John Healey: I am not keen to be too helpful, but I will reflect on what the hon. Gentleman says.
The hon. Member for Hexham said that he wants to get on with the campaign for the elections in May, and all of us, from our different parties, would agree with that. We also all have a certain responsibility here as we select candidates for those elections. If we all want to see a new authority established and a new council to give the sort of new governance and leadership we need in Northumberland and in Durham, we need to pick good candidates who will play a part in forging a new council for Durham and for Northumberland.
Finally, I welcome the tone of this debate. I am keen to ensure that we get on with the preparations for the new councils. The implementation orders contain the ability to look for a plan, which we can keep a close eye on. The hon. Member for Hexham urged me to keep a close eye, to ensure that developments and momentum are maintained over the next 12 months, and I can give him and other hon. Members the assurance that I will do just that.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008.


That the Committee has considered the draft Northumberland (Structural Change) Order 2008—[John Healey.]
Committee rose at seven minutes to Four o’clock.

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